February 4, 2019
By Orathai Sriring
BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand’s central bank is all but certain to hold its key interest rate steady on Wednesday after December’s tightening, pausing to support a slowing economy in the face of growing external risks.
All 20 economists surveyed by Reuters predicted the Bank of Thailand (BOT)’s monetary policy committee (MPC) will keep its one-day repurchase rate at 1.75 percent.
In December, the rate was raised by 25 basis points to the current level from near record lows for the first time in more than seven years, mainly aimed at tempering financial stability risks. The vote was 5-2, with the two dissenters favoring no change to policy.
Last month, BOT Governor Veerathai Santiprabhob said accommodative monetary policy was still needed to support Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy and that “building policy space is a secondary target”.
The BOT forecast economic growth at 4 percent this year, down from 4.2 percent estimated for 2018.
“We expect the BOT to tone down its language on the possibility of a follow-up rate hike this year, following a one and done delivery in December,” said Charnon Boonnuch, economist of Nomura in Singapore.
“Growth has also lost momentum and inflation has been undershooting the target. This further supports our case of no policy rate hikes in 2019.”
The baht has been Asia’s best performing currency this year, which is not so good for its key export sector already pressured by the U.S.-Sino trade dispute.
Annual headline inflation was only 0.27 percent in January, staying below the BOT’s 1-4 percent target range for three straight months..
Some economists, however, said further monetary policy tightening was possible later this year.
Tim Leelahaphan, economist of Standard Chartered, said while the BOT was likely to stay on hold this week, some members might vote for a further increase.
“We expect hikes later this year, as the BOT has emphasized financial stability risks from prolonged low rates,” said Tim, who is predicting increases in March and the third quarter.
Yet any further tightening is likely dependent on a range of factors.
HSBC, for instance, is expecting the central bank to hike in the third quarter as long as China’s economic growth rebounds by mid-year, global oil prices rise gradually in the second half of the year and the Federal Reserve increases rates once this year, in September.
That’s a lot of ‘ifs’, especially with the Fed last week signaling its current tightening cycle might be at an end. And, at home, Thailand will hold an election on March 24 – the first since a 2014 military coup, potentially stoking political uncertainty.
(GRAPHIC: Thai Policy rate, CPI, GDP – https://tmsnrt.rs/2t50z0n)
(Additional reporting by Khushboo Mittal and Anisha Sheth in BENGALURU; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)